Thursday, September 20, 2007


A national seminar on ‘North East in the 21st Century: Issues and concerns’, was organized in (Dt7-8) February 2005 by the Department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad. Various important issues, questions and concerns pertaining to all North Eastern states of India, the North East for short, were raised and discussed. Surprisingly, the seminar did not cover Mizoram on the ground that there are no problems worth analyzing in Mizoram. I was not convinced. First, there indeed are problems which are worth examining. Secondly, Mizoram does not lack good things from which intellectual debates can be generated and learned. Or is it the case that scholarly and intellectual concerns should not cross the limit of problems in the society? Such attitude only reveals how the positive aspect of institutional development has been largely ignored by various discourses in amongst Indian intelligentsia.

In this work, I shall briefly outline North East (Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh) against the larger Indian context. My intention is not to present any final picture but to open up some points for under discussion. My focus is essentially on the issue of marginalization of North East.

It has been more than 50 years since India has been playing around with different projection paradigms in the North East, such as, ‘exotic cultural paradigm’, ‘security paradigm’, ‘integration paradigm’, ‘politics paradigm’, ‘economic package paradigm’, and so on. (Jairam Ramesh, 2005) Despite the efforts and possible solutions suggested by officials, intellectuals, medias, scholars and NGO activists, many questions are yet to be addressed. More importantly, the oft debated well known issues are left unattended despite promises to solve them. Why is it so?

The North East has been a part and parcel of South Asia since time immemorial. It is not an isolated entity but part of a wider socio-political and religious networks of neighbouring settlements, often constituting a sub-region. They relate to the even larger geo-political contexts of region, state, and nation. Assam has many foreign visitors of the Chinese, Persia, Arab, Portuguese, French and Italian etc. (N.N Acharyya, 1985) Assam, Manipur, Tripura have been known prior to the coming of the foreign elements – the colonial rulers. Hill tribes maintained their commercial contact with the plain areas of Assam and Bengal. Even the minority group of Chakmas had trade relations with the Mughals. Contact between Nagas and the Ahoms of Assam produced a new hybrid language called Nagamese. (B.K Baruah, 1993) The sacred literature of Ram and Sita was known to the Mizos many years before the British colonialism held sway in the North East. (Sangkima, 2002) Therefore, the region is not an isolated entity. Currently, the term ‘isolated region’ could validly be interpreted only in terms of India’s policy towards the development of technology and means of communication in the region. The distance between Delhi and Assam or Nagaland in the North East is perhaps lesser than distance between Delhi and Andhra Pradesh of southern India. But why do we still talk about North East as being isolated?

Discourse on the concept of North East by mainstream officials, scholars, medias and social scientists have always been an enterprise implicit in the agenda of India’s nationalism. The term North East was invented by the colonialist to identify a geographical area, later on adopted by Indian officials, intellectuals and medias for administrative and other suspicious political reasons. The term certainly requires scrutiny in the light of contemporary political situations. In sharp contrast to the existing concept, various ethnic groups in the North East prefer to identify themselves under their own specific group identity such as Assamese of Assam, Nagas of Nagaland, Mizos of Mizoram, Bodos of Assam and so on and so forth. The local people do not use the term North East and it has no viable meaning to them since there are apparent traits that mark a clear cut distinction between the various groups under discussion. One should not forget that North East depicts diversity of languages and cultural practices. For instance, there are more than 16 languages spoken in Nagaland alone. This diversity within the North East has to be noted rather than portraying the region as a homogenous entity while attempting to initiate discussions or developmental activities.

The Post-Independence era has been a period of confusion in the North East. Because of negligence (or should we say marginalization?) people have been and are confused about their future and their identity which resulted in so many peoples’ movements and struggles. Continuous marginalization has brought about more distrust and apathy. Initially, the only response or answer they got for their demands from the Central government was the Indian army. But we can see clear evidence of its failure to bring about normalcy in the region after 56 years of trials and experiments with the armed forces since India’s independence. The Indian army, the second largest in Asia is still unable to contain the small ‘insurgency’ groups of the region. The army has not provided a solution but merely infested the minds of the people with confusion and hatred. All northeastern states have shown resentment towards the occupation of the army in one way or the other. Retaliation is not the best solution when everyone wants to live a normal life. Has the Central government ever given a serious thought as to why so many young people still want to risk their lives by joining the so called insurgency groups?

The term ‘insurgency’ which has become an official and intellectual categorization needs to be explicated here. There has been little attempt to clarify the concept of insurgency’ in the context of the North East. Currently, the term has been generated and applied from one particular angle alone, from the mainstream nationalist perspective connoting a rebellious attitude or meaning. The term insurgency etymologically comes from a Latin word ‘insurgere’ which means to ‘rise up’. In English, the word could mean a ‘rebel’ or a ‘revolutionary’. Therefore, the official Indian perception or interpretation actually comes from the latter and is one sided. Explicitly infused with the English prejudice, officials, media and social scientists have branded North East as being infested by various ‘insurgency groups’ or ‘rebel groups’. On the contrary, it follows from the original word ‘insurgere’ it can be taken to mean that people have ‘risen up’ against marginalization. The Mizo National Front movement in 1966-1987 when Mizoram was an autonomous district council under the state of Assam is a good example of such an instance where people have ‘risen up’ against the negligence of the state towards a devastating famine that had ailed the region.( This case can also apply to many parts of the North East. Is it too much on the part of the mainstream Indian thinkers and policy makers to consider if the demands made by the local people are genuine at all?

The media has shaped the mainstream Indian’s perception of the North East. Insurgency, weird cultural practices and dirty politics have been the favorite topics of the mainstream reporters. They just report with intention to capture the imaginations of the mainstream people. Lack of cultural understanding coupled by superimposition of their own constructed ideas about the North East people result in suppression and distortion of truth or ground realities. Hardly, there is any visible effort either to change the undesirable situation in the region or methods in depicting the identity of the North East people. These images soon become ingrained in the consciousness of the mainstream Indian citizens. Occasionally, stories about cultural activities appear on some news paper but these are usually given only in passing. Insurgency, ethnic conflicts and crises get reported, genuine people stories rarely do. There are an awful lot of good things happening but they often escape the notice of the national and international reporters as if a rule unless somebody pushes to get them there. Such attitudes and practices sowed the seed of suspicion and hatred in the minds of the North East people. The Naga Students’ Federation who had forbidden a non-Naga to write on Naga history without their prior approval is a good example. (M.S Prabhakara, 2003)

Marginalization of the North Eastern region could be seen in the trend of historical writings in India. Well known intellectuals of the academic world such as Peter Burke’s ‘popular culture’, Eric Wolf’s ‘people without history’, E.P Thompson’s ‘unsung voices of history’, Genovese’s ‘objects and subjects of history’, Hobsbawm’s ‘social banditry’, Ranajit Guha’s ‘subaltern’, Lacan’s ‘others’, Said’s ‘orientalism’ Barthes’ ‘structural analysis of narratives’, Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’, Michel Foucault’s ‘history of the historian’ Skaria’s ‘hybrid histories’ and many others question the existing orthodoxy of historical discourse. (Kate Currie, 1997. E Shreedharan, 2004). This is also true in the context of the North East as the regional specificity has been ignored by the academic community until the recent time. The greatest challenge to the Indian historians is to incorporate regional histories in the broader framework of Indian history. (B.B Kumar, 1999) There has been consistent exclusion of North East from the history of India. Such neglect prompted the historians of North East India to take up research on the area but they failed to communicate them to the rest of India. As a result North East continues to suffer from historiographical exclusion. (Sajal Nag, 1998) This indifferent attitude towards the North East is evident in national curricula. (Sirkka Ahonen, 2001) The cultural history of various communities of the North East has hardly found space in national curricula. Their heroes are forgotten and instead fed with the stories of kings and kingdoms of the rest of India that largely does not appeal to the people of the North East. The struggle of Khasis, Mizo Chiefs, Jaintias and Nagas against the British have no place at all in the history of India. This is not only sad but also extremely unfair. The question remains the same with when Spivak asks ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’! (‘Can the Northeasterner Speak’). (Gayatri Spivak, 1988) The answer is still ‘No’ in Indian history unless a comprehensive change in the historical discourse of India takes place.

Finally, most of the current issues pertaining to North East are manufactured from outside but not from within. The region(s) are defined in terms of externality and the voice of civil society is hardly heard. Therefore, to undo marginalization of the North East, ‘the inside views’ should be given due and appropriate platforms. Perhaps, the North East will be then truly capable of representing themselves and also learn to thrive along with the rich cultural diversity of India.

  1. B.B Kumar (1999), ‘North East India: Crisis of perception & Credible Action’ in Dialogue (Quaterly) (A journal of Astha Bharathi, New Delhi). Vol.1 No.2 Oct-Dec.
  2. B.K Baruah (1993); Nagamese: The Language of Nagaland.
  3. Gayatri Spivak (1988), ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ in Cary Nelson & Lawrence; Marxism and and the Interpretation of Culture. Ranajit Guha & Gyatri Spivak (Edt); Selected Subaltern Studies, 1988.
  4. Jairam Ramesh(2005); ‘Northeast India in a new Asia,, 2005.
  5. Kate Currie(1977); ‘The Challenge to Orientalist, Elitist and western historiography, Notes on the Subaltern project 1982-1989’ in George Pfeffer & Deepak Kumar Behera; Contemporary Society Tribal Studies, Volume Two, Concept Publishing House, New Delhi, 1997. E Shreedharan (2004); A Textbook of Historiography 500BC to AD 2000, Orient Longman,New Delhi. Eric Wolf (1982); Europe and the People Without history, University of California Press, Los Angeles. Peter Burke ‘The discovery of popular culture’ in Raphael Samuel (1981); People’s history and Socialist Theory, Routledge & Kegan Poul. Ajay Skaria (; Hybrid histories, Forest, Frontiers and wildness in western India, Oxford University Press.
  6. M.S Prabhakara (2003) ‘objects of history, on the politics of the Naga Students’ Federation’s warning against any academic research into the Naga people’s history without permission’ in Frontline, 26, September.
  7. N.N Acharyya (1983); Assam and Neighbouring States: Historical Document, Omsons Publications, New Delhi. S.C Dutta (1984); The Nort-East and The Mughals (1661-1714), DK Publications, Delhi.
  8. National curricula convey narratives that are never inclusive of whole communities, and history curricula in particular need examination of their role as forms of ‘identity politics. Minorities tend to be excluded from the master historical narratives. Sirkka Ahonen (2001); "Politics of identity through history curriculum: narratives of the past for social exclusion—or inclusion?" in Journal of Curriculum Studies ISSN 0022–0272 print/ISSN 1366–5839 online, Taylor & Francis Ltd,
  9. N.N Acharyya (1985); North East as View by Foreigners, Omsons Publications, Guwahati.
  10. Sajal Nag (1998); India and North-East India, Mind, politics, and the process of
integration 1946-1950, Recency Publication, New Delhi, 1998.
11. (2002) ; Contesting Marginality: Insurgency and Subnationalism in North East India, Monohar.

12. Sangkima (2002); ‘Impact of Ramayana upon the Mizo’ in Sujit K. Ghosh (Ed) Ramayana in the North-East India: Proceedings of the National Seminar Organised by Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Samiti, Silchar. Sujit K. Ghosh ;Elective Affinities: The Influence of "Ramayan" on Mizo Religion & Culture’, in International Conference on Revisiting Indus-Sarasvati Age & Ancient India, October, 4 (Friday) - 6 (Sunday), 1996 Atlanta (Georgia), U.S.A


sawmpuia said...

Nice argument. But at the same time i began to think that do we need to identify ourself as North East can we have Mizo as identity.... yeah! it's true that the mainland label us as North East. Some of the north easterner used the same for their ideology.

Philo said...

With the possibility that this piece is still under construction, thought these trajectories might add to it.
In the politics of subject-constitution and object-formation, as Spivak would render it, I was rather surprised that you saw the challenge for Indian historians being the mainlining of the marginal histories within ‘broader’ frameworks because if it were so, it will just overwrite or subdue the transaction between the speaker and the hearer and, in turn, perpetuate the inability to ‘speak’. Is there another way possible to let ‘speak’ and be ‘heard’ that deconstructs the binaries which in the first place necessitated the transaction or, to use Spivak’s analogy: how could Bhuvaneswari, who did ‘speak’ in her act of suicide/sati, be heard?
Also, many existential-experiential re-/de-constructions have suffered the fate of the all too easy demonizing of the other and instinctively reflexive romanticizing of the self. That the outside is to blame for most of the problems of the NE flattens the issues at play and a more articulated deliberation of the real insightful observations in this essay would be most awaited.

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illusionaire said...

There are many factors responsible for such an "isolation", among which one of the first and foremost factors would be social grouping. Similar to Sumner's classification of society into in-group and out-group or Cooley's classification of primary and secondary, the most basic element for such a classification would be physical appearance. Language may be another important factor too (regarding one of your previous posts, about language being a uniting factor), but as the saying goes, "first impression is the deepest impression", the first contact we have with anyone is "sight" rather than "speech". Hence it would be fair to assume a sardarji being more comfortable with another sardarji in a group of non-sardars, or a Mizo more comfortable with a Naga stranger in a crowd of Bengalis or Tamilians etc. even though there may be few exceptions who have broken away from the stereotype mould.

Altogether, this is a great post, well researched as usual, and I would like to use it as a reference link to one of my up-coming posts about insurgency in the North-east, if you don't mind.

Thanx for such a great read, Pu Hruai.

Awzzman said...

we shall over come someday....!

azialo said...

ziak tha hle mai....!

rotlingpa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rotlingpa said...

Good work. Politics: a Latin word meaning 'many'; and 'tics' meaning 'bloodsucking creatures'-Robin Williams (The Times of India). lol

Zr-i said...

'the man' chuan pic a va post nalh deuh ve a...photographer nge a model zir zok poh siat hleih nem a :PP

eszet said...

laltai,hemi topic lampang hmanni i thil min discuss pui kha..helped me a lot for my seminar.thanx soooo much.YOU DA MAN!!o and by the way thlalak hi - engtika i "customarize" nge?chhe lo thei angreng

p & b said...

we linked you. just letting you know.

lalthansangi said...

U taia blog hi a ngaihnawm hle mai... amah hi lehkha thia tih tak ah kan bengvar phah uar2 mai :)

lalthansangi said...

Ur The Man!

DayDreamBeliever said...

great post...may I use it as a reference?

Lecea said...

Good for people to know.

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